Fairy tales could be older than you ever imagined
Fairy tales have been around for a very long time. A few hundred years ago, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault helped bring magical tales to life.
Tales of princesses and evil ogres were in their storybooks. The tales included dark forests and weird spells. The stories found their way to the bedsides of children.
But how old are the tales they wrote? A study suggests that their origins go all the way back to prehistory.
The new study has been published. It appears in the journal Royal Society Open Science. In it, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than first thought.
Many have believed the stories date from the 1500s. But now, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are much older. They could be 4,000 and 5,000 years old. This goes against earlier theories. It was thought that story collectors, like the Brothers Grimm, were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.
But we now know that it's pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are. That is, if you use simple historical data. The tales were passed down orally. That means they can be almost impossible to unwind. This is if you use a historian or anthropologist's traditional toolbox.
The team borrowed from biology, instead. They used a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists. They traced the roots of 275 fairy tales. The biologists used complex trees of language, population and culture.
Researchers used the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales. It is a kind of super index. It breaks fairy tales down into groups. For instance, the groups may be "the obstinate wife learns to obey" or "partnership between man and ogre."
The team tracked the presence of the tales in 50 Indo-European language-speaking populations. They were able to find the ancestries of 76 tales. They tracked them backward. To do it, they used language trees.
As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots. Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages. That was more than 5,000 years ago. There is a tale called The Smith and the Devil. It appears to be more than 6,000 years old.
The findings might confirm the long-disregarded theory of fairy tale writer Wilhelm Grimm. He thought that all Indo-European cultures shared common tales. Not everyone is sure that the study proves fairy tales are that old. As Chris Samoray writes for Science News, other folklorists are finding fault with the study's claim that The Smith and the Devil dates back to the Bronze Age.
Are the days of using historical records and written clues to learn more about a culture's oral history numbered? No way, says the research team. "Of course, this does not diminish the value of excavating the literary record for evidence about the origins and development of oral tales," they write.
Researchers will still keep looking for the origins of fairy tales in books. In the meantime, it might be time to pick up that once-familiar storybook. And dream about who told the same tales thousands of years ago.